8.3.1 Aims of the module: from knowledge to critical thinking

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Unit 8 Contents


The main aim of this module until this unit has been to enable knowledge and understanding of CST.  The text on screen has mainly been expository: it has given background information about, and outlined points that help to explain, the primary texts of CST.

Under the heading ‘CST by sat nav’, the very first screen in this module said:

To do the module you need to work through what appears on screen – just follow the ‘learning path’ that has been designed to guide you through what can seem at first glance an impenetrable maze of possible routes.

Why this metaphor of multiple routes?  Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is extremely interesting, indeed inspiring and uplifting.  At least many people find it to be all these things, once they’ve got hold of the main elements of what it is saying.  But its main source is a series of lengthy documents issued on behalf of the Catholic Church over the past 120 years, directed to different historical, political and economic contexts, which are not always easy reading.

If you have worked through the module simply by following the ‘learning path’ it provides, I hope you now have a sense of knowing the ‘places’ you have visited on the way.  Specifically, I hope the material on screen has indeed made reading the primary texts less difficult than they might have been if you had landed on them out of the blue.  (I also wonder if you would agree that CST is “extremely interesting, indeed inspiring and uplifting”…)

What this final unit should have enabled also, through its review of historical knowledge and the reading of Centesimus Annus, is a bringing together, a synthesis, of the knowledge you have gained from earlier units.

So, while the earlier units have aimed mainly to give exposition that enables knowledge and understanding, this unit has already added the aim of synthesis.  The reading you will do in a moment, from Donal Dorr’s book, should give you a much better sense of having achieved the latter aim – of seeing CST as a whole.

Of course, this must immediately be qualified by a reminder that, as this is one of two parallel modules, you have not covered all of CST in this module.  Possibly you have already have studied the twin VPlater module, ‘Living in a Just and Free Society’, in which case you really should have a sense of gaining a good overall understanding by now.

That said, I think this module alone can give a fairly good appreciation of CST overall.  This is especially because it has taken a historical approach, therefore enabling people to have a clear sense of the narrative of CST’s development.

This final unit also adds a fourth aim to those of knowledge, understanding and synthesis.  It aims to enable you to develop your capacity for critical thinking about CST.  In fact, all of the earlier units have intended to facilitate such critical thinking, even if only to a limited extent.  Some ‘Reflections’ and ‘Exercises’ have done this.  No doubt discussions you’ve participated in during study, whether face-to-face or on-line, have generated critical assessment of material you’ve read.  Most specifically, some units have included, near the end, an item of secondary reading that gives an overview and critical perspective on the topic of the unit or on a main issue addressed in it.  Examples of these pieces of reading are the article by Celia Deane-Drummond on ecology in Unit 3 and the chapter from Lisa Sowle Cahill’s book, Family, in Unit 6.

However, critical reflection is especially a focus in this final unit, rather than earlier.  This is for one main reason.  Knowledge of a subject is the basic prerequisite for thinking about it critically.  You can’t reasonably assess something which you are ignorant about or don’t understand!

This is both a statement of the obvious and a point well worth making.  It is the latter because many people can be very easily tempted to air their views on things about which they are not well qualified to speak.  Perhaps this is very much true for some of the topics that CST addresses.  In making use in some units of the method called ‘See, judge, act’, now developed into the pastoral cycle or spiral, I have emphasised the value of people bringing their own experience to study of the topics we’ve looked at – working life, business and family, for example.  This can be very valuable, not least as it enables a clear sense of how immediate and real such issues are, even if some reading about them seems abstract.

But that runs the risk, of course, of people not getting beyond their own experience.  Very often, students’ assignments that require use of the pastoral spiral give far too much space to relating personal experience.  This is a pity because the whole point is that the ‘See, judge, act’ method can enable people to learn in ways that really do cast new light on experience, and therefore enable change for the better.  But for this, you really do have to work through the stages of the spiral, reassessing your own experience in light of the much wider perspectives that new knowledge can give.  Just bringing your own experience to mind and describing it is no guarantee that you’ll learn anything new; in fact there’s a risk that this will divert you away from encountering new ideas and insights.

All of which helps to explain why we come to critical assessment of CST directly only near the end of the module.  But note: this does not mean it is insignificant for your study.  On the contrary, you are expected for your assignments, as in any academic course, to demonstrate critical thinking about the material you have studied.  The pastoral spiral is precisely one method of enabling this.


End of 8.3.1

Go to 8.3.2 Dorr’s critical assessment after 100 years

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